“Palmer Should Have Phoned Out for Pizza”

Graham Kibble-White interviews Mark Wright

First published September 2003

Mark Wright is an accomplished writer “currently scraping out a living as a freelance” contributing to various magazines, writing for Big Finish’s range of Doctor Who audio dramas and turning out the odd book along the way (he’s currently planning to write a guide to the Indiana Jones adventures).

OTT caught up with Mark as he battled with deadlines to complete his latest book, 1001 DVDs You Should Own, to ask him about his recent publication 24: Season 2: The Unofficial Guide, published by Contender Books.

OTT: So, how come you didn’t write the 24 book for Contender last year?

MARK WRIGHT: I first came to work for Contender when I was commissioned to write the production notes and booklet for the first box set of The Professionals on DVD. Lee Binding, who commissioned me for that work, recommended me to the company’s book division when they were keen to do a guide to the first season of 24. I was asked to write the book, but unfortunately in the time scale they wanted the finished manuscript, I was working on a Doctor Who script whilst still holding down a 9 – 5 job at What DVD, so it just wasn’t possible. This was a real shame, as books was a direction I really wanted to go in. Jim Sangster is a mate, and as he had written some highly successful episode guides himself, I happily recommended him. As it was, I was commissioned to write a guide to CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, so I got to do my book after all (although that never saw the light of day for reasons I shan’t bore you with – but I’ve got a fully typeset manuscript sitting on my desk).

OTT: What was the brief this time around? Were you looking to follow up on what Jim had done, or take a different direction for the second book?

MARK WRIGHT: When it came to season two, naturally Jim was the first choice to handle it, but he had just got a commission for the official Spooks book, so the project was handed to me. I had just gone freelance, so was incredibly keen. I wanted to keep intact a lot of what Jim had done with the first volume, but take some of the elements into a more humorous direction. The strength of the first book is the mini-essays that discuss a related theme from the episode in detail, and Jim is so good at doing those and basically, I’m not, so I decided to lose that aspect and expand the categories of the guide. So we get analysis of Jack’s character, and Kim’s dumbness, and I went for sections like “Fashion Police”, that kind of thing. I also wanted some sort of episode review and rating system (which also satisfies the legal angle of unofficial publishing of this nature), so hence the “Debrief” and “Pulse Rate” sections.

OTT: What were the actual mechanics of writing the book?

MARK WRIGHT: I was commissioned to wrote the book in October, and had a delivery date of late May to tie in with the transmission of the final episode in the US. So, of course, I didn’t start writing until April! It was easy to write the up front sections as that was all to hand, researchable material like actor profiles and synopsis of the first season. I also had interviews with Dennis Haysbert and Leslie Hope from the publicity rounds for the first season DVD, so that really strengthened the front section.

The most difficult thing to write was the actual synopsis of the episodes. The plots are so involved with 24 that you really have to include everything and that can take a couple of hours. It’s very dry writing, and you always wonder if you should be spicing it up with comments and off the cuff lines, but that would probably get in the way. Those are the sections that make the writing process arduous. The fun bits are the categories where you can actually be creative and put your own voice into the writing.

I did drag my heels a little bit, so I think I’d watched the first 10 episodes by the time I started writing. But that was a good idea as the general feel of the season was established by then, all the conventions and characters were in place, so I could work with running jokes by that point. I wrote the main block of the episode guide section at my parents’ in Yorkshire over Easter. I was house-sitting so I had the place to myself and just got my head down. At that stage I was doing around three episodes a day, which is about nine hours work. I can’t really say how long the book took to write as I dragged my heels so much. Writers can probably get work done in half the time it actually takes them, but we wait until the last possible second before having to do it. There are far too many cups of tea, trips to the shop for a bun, computer-games to play and episodes of Doctors to watch before getting on with any work.

OTT: Presumably you came to 24 series two with some preconceptions. What had you thought of the first series? Were you a hardcore fan? And what were your hopes for series two?

MARK WRIGHT: Like most people, I thought that season one was highly disjointed, however entertaining. That’s even more apparent when you watch the season back to back on DVD, which was my first experience of 24. I actually interviewed Leslie Hope when I’d seen just the first episode! I wouldn’t say I was a hardcore fan at this point. I thought the real-time aspect got in the way of good storytelling, especially when you watch in the UK and it blatantly isn’t in real-time. But the performances were compelling all round, and TV is rarely this entertaining, which will always be 24‘s virtue. The gimmick is secondary.

OTT: How did you think series two compared to the first? This time around the whole 24 episodes were plotted in advance – do you think that made a difference?

MARK WRIGHT: I thought it was much more polished and confident. There was an air of pushing the envelope a bit, of a team who’d had chance to play and beat out the main points. At first I thought it was a mistake to detonate the bomb when they did, and wasn’t sure if they could pull the narrative back from such a high point of adrenaline. But then I realized that the final act was much more contemplative, having the courage to examine the ramifications of that event.

OTT: What’s your take on the slightly gratuitous torture sequences this time around, and the continuing plot device of people being locked in rooms?

MARK WRIGHT: Anyone who has heard my Doctor Who plays will know that I’m never averse to a bit of torture, but perhaps things were taken a little far. It’s a debate that could go on and on. There are bad people in the world who do bad things, and good people in the world who have to do bad things to bad people to get information. I think it’s well within Jack’s character to act in the way he did towards Ali and Marie, and to have our central character die at the hands of torturers made for one of the best cliffhangers in that real adventure serial style. We know Jack will survive, but it’s damn exciting! I do think that the torture and murder of Paul Koplin in front of Kate Warner was a bit much though, especially when the poor bloke had his old man chopped off. Now that was just cruel.

As for the constant turnaround of people being locked in rooms, I think it’s good fun actually. It’s a convention of the series in the same way that running up and down corridors is part of Doctor Who and red shirts dying is part of Star Trek. I do think Palmer should have phoned out for pizza and watched a movie when he was locked up – that was a lovely widescreen TV he had in that room.

OTT: Likewise, how do you view Kim’s storylines? An annoying distraction from the main plot, or a welcome second layer?

MARK WRIGHT: I’m in two minds about this one. On the one hand, the constant need to have Kim in danger was a bit silly. But then there are moments when she absolutely breaks your heart. Her reaction to Jack’s apparent sacrifice with the bomb was beautifully played by Elisha Cuthbert. I loved the plotline with Kevin Dillon as the loony survivalist, but I think all of Kim’s adventures were justified in that one moment when she guns down Gary Matheson. Jack must force his daughter to become a killer, and it’s a wonderful character moment that really pays off.

OTT: What do you think have been this year’s stand-out moments? Do they compare to the highpoints from series one?

MARK WRIGHT: George Mason was a joy throughout. I cried when he went down with the bomb. That was the best episode by far. The return of Nina Myers was handled well and I was a big fan of the team-up between Jack and Yusuf Auda. It was like a different show, and I suspect that might form something of a blueprint for season three. The cliffhanger ending felt too tacked on to be truly successful, but still fun, although you have to be a real fan to realize the connection back to season one. I had to look twice. I don’t think season one had that many standout moments, aside from Terri’s death. I think the team wanted more “events” this time round, almost playing to the crowd a little too much, but I reckon they pulled it off.

OTT: Earlier this year you guested on BBC3′s 24 “fanzine”, Pure 24. How was the experience of doing live TV? Do the studio audience collectively watch the episode together as the show suggests? And what’s your take on this kind of programme?

MARK WRIGHT: Pure 24 was a blast. I was very surprised to be on there, but it was great fun. At the end of the day, I’m a hack, and then I’m being flown to Manchester to do some telly. Very bizarre. I’ve done TV and radio before from my days working on What DVD magazine so the live aspect wasn’t too daunting, and I love the atmosphere of a TV studio. The Pure 24 team are lovely, and everybody has a laugh. It was great being on that first show with Lennie James as I’d seen him in so many things, and he gave me a couple of suggestions for the book, like the drinking game. All in all it was a great experience and one that I’d love to do again.

As far as I know the audience watch the episode together, but the couch guests are across the road discussing the episode with Zara the Assistant Producer.

I think shows like this are good if the fan base is there, and 24 seems to have that kind of fan who do want to discuss the episode over the watercooler on Monday morning. Pure 24 sort of preempts that, and I tend to think if the BBC feel there’s an audience for shows like this, then why not? It’s been successful enough to warrant a third series next year.

OTT: How important do you think the real time format is to 24‘s success?

MARK WRIGHT: I think it might become a hindrance for season three and get in the way of telling a good story. It was fine for the first two as it was almost believable, but I’m not sure about it for season three. It was a great hook for the audience to begin with, but now we know the characters so well, do we really need it? Having said that, take away the real-time aspect, and I guess you lose what makes the show so unique.

OTT: Where next for the series? Is there anything left for it to do?

MARK WRIGHT: I think we’ll get a more personal story for season three. You can’t really get any bigger than a nuclear bomb going off, there’s nowhere else to go, unless you want to do 24 hours of an alien invasion (now that might work!) I think we’ll see things much more from Jack’s perspective, see him happier and back at work, maybe in the field. I wouldn’t like to say if any of the hanging plot strands from season two will be picked up, but from what I’ve been hearing it will take place a couple of years later during Palmer’s campaign for re-election (so it seems he survives).

And as for Kim being gay? I think that might be too many people listening to internet gossip!